First, a confession: I didn’t finish The Witcher 3. In fact, I don’t even think I got half way through it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I played of it. Adored it even. Poured at least 20 hours into it – but couldn’t finish it. Reviewing games often means that I have to drop a game I’m playing to focus on another one (in this instance it was Abyss Odyssey and Commander Cherry’s Puzzled Journey) and by the time I have enough time to go back to what I want to play in my own time, I’ve forgotten what I was doing in it or how to play them. I attempted to pick up my save game on Witcher 3 a month or so after I put it to one side and was dead a matter of seconds later, having forgotten how to fight entirely. I tried repeatedly to get the hang of it but fighting mid-game foes with beginner level muscle memory proved to be impossible.
Even before I became a “critic” though, this would often be the case. I’ve never seen the end of Skyrim’s main campaign thread, despite starting it at least 10 times and playing it for hundreds of hours. Before I can get to that final battle (which I sought out on YouTube, giving up on ever managing to complete it), a new hotness gets released, distracting me for just long enough to make returning to it a complicated chore of reading quest logs and remembering how to do everything all over again. I didn’t finish Mass Effect 3 either, despite being 40 hours into it. I had to travel for work for a month and by the time I got back, the game felt like a stranger, compounded by the fact that my save game was immediately before a combat sequence I’d forgotten how to fight in. The same could be said about Destiny. I burnt through the vanilla version in a month, completing everything it had to offer and then decided to set it aside for a few months. By the time I returned (admittedly, more than a few months later), both The Dark Below and House of Wolves expansions had been released. Upon booting the game back up, I was unceremoniously dumped into a hub area I’d never been too with no explanation, complete with quest logs for missions I’d not accepted. I spent an hour trying to figure out where I was and what I was supposed to be doing before I gave up.
I might sound like an old man yelling at the sky here but I posed this situation to a number of gaming groups over the past few weeks and was pleased to discover I’m not the only one who has abandoned games that feel impenetrable after taking a break. There were hundreds of people who felt the same way; that medium to long games don’t do enough to accommodate the return of lapsed players. Final Fantasy VX, Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Fallout 4, Dragon Age, Batman Arkham Knight and Destiny 2 were all cited as games people had given up on because they weren’t welcoming enough to returning players. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got a game or 2 that you’ve abandoned after a lapse in playing, that feels like a real chore to restart, too.
As the industry continues its exploration of “games as a service”, doing all they can to keep you playing for longer on few and fewer games (the pros and cons of this are a discussion for another time), with games containing more content than ever before, this is only going to become more of a problem for a portion of gamers. Those that enjoy a big 50 hour game but have to take a break from them for whatever reason will find it ever more difficulty to get back into them. For the publishers and developers, allowing lapsed players to re-join their titles more easily opens up revenue streams they’re currently ignoring.
Some games have already acknowledged this as an issue for them and have taken steps to alleviate it. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, for example, has an “Odyssey’s” panel on the quests screen which gives an abridged version of where you’re at with the main story arc’s which is then detailed in the related quests. Red Dead Redemption 2 has the ability to replay tutorial levels whenever you see fit, creating a “restore” point to which you’ll return once you’ve replayed the mission and re-learnt whatever it is you need too. Telltale (RIP) and Dontnod (Life is Strantge) have been recapping their stories for years at the start of each episodic released. Devil May Cry 5’s Void Mode, basically a practice arena for you to try out new moves and techniques, doubles as a space to reacclimatise yourself with the combat of the game for those who take a break from it.
These steps need to go further and become universal if the bigger publishers want to continue their crusade into “games as a service” and ever larger game worlds or continue to lose lapsed players and the money they could potentially bring to the table. One suggestion was to have a plot recap via a cut scene for a game’s narrative if the title recognises you’ve not played it for more than a few weeks. Replayable tutorials and practice modes need to become common place. At the very least, Anthem and the other lengthy titles due out in 2019 need to have abridged plot and quest summaries akin to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Without these measures, and with the trajectory that the industry is currently on, lapsed players abandoning impenetrable games they’ve part played rather than going through the chore of restarting them will become more and more common.